The issue of road pricing is not new but the alarming way in which the government is trying to ignore it is a worrying trend. Instead, it is up to local leaders to take control.
The local approach
In a time of rising inflation and a cost-of-living crisis it takes courage for politicians to actively seek to increase costs on motorists. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is one of those brave souls. The expansion of the Ultra-Low Emission Zone has created huge controversy.
As TfL notes, 'to help clear London's air and improve health, the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) is expanding across all London boroughs from 29 August 2023'.
Opponents have queried whether air quality will really improve and have alleged that it is really about raising money. The three candidates fighting to stand for the Conservatives in the next London mayoral election are all standing on an anti-ULEZ expansion platform.
Plans for a clean air zone in Greater Manchester resulted in a 'blame game' between Manchester and the Conservative Government each deflecting responsibility for plans for a charging zone. The revised approach to clean air plans in Greater Manchester may not now include the need for a charge.
An imminent decision is due to be made by the Greater Cambridge Partnership on three potential alternatives to its original Sustainable Travel Zone road charge proposal.
In February 2022, the Transport Select Committee issued a report on road pricing. This was not its first consideration of the issue. But a government response was not received until February 2023. The usual convention is for a government to respond two months after a reports' publication. The Committee said it was 'disappointed by lack of Treasury engagement on motoring tax.'
The Chair of the Committee even wrote to the Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt MP, saying:
"It is discourteous both to my Committee and to the witnesses who freely gave their time and expertise, both in writing and in person, that your Department has not meaningfully engaged with the substance of our report nor responded to the specific conclusions and recommendations made."
When the original report was issued, the Committee's then Chair, Huw Merriman MP declared:
"It's time for an honest conversation on motoring taxes."
The subsequent fall out between the Committee and the Treasury suggest that that honest conversation is not going to take place any time soon.
The issue of pricing continues to be too difficult politically for national government but that is what makes the example of London and potentially Cambridge so important. Add the experience of Clean Air Zones around English cities and you can see how crucial local leadership is.
Regardless of the party in power after the next General Election, more devolution is promised. The Conservative theme of 'levelling up' may fall by the wayside but it is the party that has introduced a range of mayors and more devolution deals promised. Labour commissioned Gordon Brown to undertake a comprehensive review of the whole constitutional settlement and Keir Starmer has already said that communities will 'take back control'.
The current landscape of pricing and potential pricing schemes is confusing. Central government, according to many experts including the Transport Select Committee, needs to look at the revenue from motoring taxes but seems unwilling to do so. The justifications for pricing schemes vary between air quality and raising finance.
But with devolution comes the opportunity for local leaders to develop schemes that deliver for the communities they serve. It is the local examples that will eventually force central government to take the issue seriously.